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The fight to save New York's extravagantly '80s subway entrance
People sit inside the atrium at 60 Wall Street in New York on Saturday, July 23, 2022. The atrium has drawn praise and scorn for its extreme 1980s aesthetic and now it has sparked a debate about whether to preserve it. Gabby Jones/The New York Times.

by Dodai Stewart

NEW YORK, NY.- Angular white columns. Dizzying mirrored tile. Lines of palm trees. The atrium at 60 Wall St., which is also one of New York’s most distinctive subway entrances, feels to some “like stepping back in time.”

In a city where the typical subway exit unceremoniously deposits passengers on a grimy sidewalk, to ride the escalator up from the dingy train station and ascend into the luminous white hall is to be truly transported. But now there is a plan to demolish this eye-popping extravaganza, designed in the 1980s, and create a sleeker, more contemporary design.

Something about scrapping the atrium, which is flashy at best and garish at worst, inspires contemplation: In a city both crammed with history and constantly remaking itself, what is worth preserving? And are ’80s designs truly historically significant?

“It’s like people are ashamed of the ’80s,” said Rock Herzog, a 38-year-old who runs the wildly popular Twitter account Cocaine Decor, where images of the atrium pop up from time to time. “To me, it feels like an attempt to sidestep the ‘American Psycho’ period of New York City.”

Liz Waytkus of Docomomo US — the American chapter of Docomomo International, a nonprofit dedicated to conserving modern buildings — would like to see the space become protected. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘Why are you trying to landmark 60 Wall St.?’ They think it’s hideous,” said Waytkus, who serves as the organization’s executive director.

She acknowledged that sometimes it is difficult for people to “remove the subjective, you know, your own personal taste” and consider the work as a whole — the design, details and references.

“There are a lot of buildings from the ’80s in New York City. I don’t think that there is a crush of ’80s buildings that should be landmarked. But this is clearly very high on that list,” she said.

The dramatic space, crafted from Carrara white marble and green granite and finished in 1989, is not just a subway entrance. It is a privately owned public space inside a 47-story skyscraper — 60 Wall St. — that served as the onetime headquarters of J.P. Morgan & Co. and later became the main New York office for Deutsche Bank.

In September, Deutsche Bank vacated the space, transferring its employees to a midtown address. Now 60 Wall St. sits mostly empty, in search of a new tenant. In order to attract one, the real estate investment trust Paramount Group, which owns the building, wants to give it an update.

For those who worked in the building, the atrium was not just a postmodern spectacle. It was also a go-to spot for gossip and chitchat.

“It was kind of dated. But at the same time, it was a great meeting place,” said Ajay Chawdhry, a former vice president at Deutsche Bank. “It had character.”

While employed there, he used the atrium daily for quick coffee meetings. Even after he left his job to work at different banks, he continued to use the atrium as a place to meet up.

Although the building is not a landmark, it was originally built under the condition that its design have what the city called a “harmonious relationship” with 55 Wall St., the National Historic Landmark across the street. The exterior and interior columns of 60 Wall St. echo those of 55 Wall St.

Currently, the future of the space is unclear. The proposed plan for modifying the exterior of 60 Wall St. is under review by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Also under review is the request to consider the building, and the atrium, a landmark. But being “under review” does not prevent construction — or demolition.

And since the atrium is a privately owned public space, the Department of City Planning must also review any modification plans.

The architect of 60 Wall St., Kevin Roche, produced extremely detailed notes about the building. Writing by hand in 1984, he envisioned that its atrium — complete with water cascading over rocks, mounds of greenery and plenty of seating — would be “well-lit, bright and cheerful.” He also planned for “pockets of repose and quiet — refuges from the hectic pace of daily life in the district.”

Roche, who in 1966 founded the firm Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, with his partner, John Dinkeloo, imagined that there would be music programming for lunchtime visitors and hoped that an art museum would provide rotating sculpture exhibitions. The two met while working under famed architect Eero Saarinen before forming their own firm together. After Dinkeloo’s death in 1981, Roche took on sole leadership of the firm; in 1982, he was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize for his “formidable body of work.”

Roche, who died in 2019, also designed the Ambassador Grill at One United Nations Plaza, which received interior landmark status in 2017, and he was the architect of the atrium at the Ford Foundation on East 42nd Street, which was named a New York City landmark in the 1990s.

The new plans for 60 Wall St., produced by architecture firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates and commissioned by Paramount Group, completely reimagine the concept of an oasis.

The firm’s “redesigned ground-level experience” will be airy, light-filled and “column free,” with triple-height windows, a 100-foot green wall and a skylight, making it look less like a Mediterranean spa and more like a Singapore airport. The thinking is that these changes can “accommodate a variety of top-tier tenants.”

One of the problems, Waytkus said, is that the space has not been maintained very well. The stores have closed, the waterfalls have stopped running, and the original live ficus trees have been replaced with plastic palms. “It just needs a little refresh,” she said.

But even when it was new, the atrium had detractors. In 1990, New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger described it as “a cloying mix of white marble, lots of trelliswork, mirrors and marble grids” and wrote that “the overall effect is oddly frilly, almost feminine, like an ice-cream parlor blown up to monumental scale.”

Still, there are those who were born in the ’80s or were children in the ’80s who love the distinctive atrium the way it is now and can only see what would be lost.

“It feels like this ’80s vision of New York that I’ve, as a Kansan, only, like, seen in movies. It feels like a small slice of that that’s somehow remained untouched,” said Gavin Snider, 36, a Brooklyn-based artist who created an impressionistic ink and colored pencil sketch of the atrium in 2019. He moved to New York in 2015 and often stops in the atrium for a quiet break.

Waytkus agrees: “It’s magical. It’s dazzling. It’s going to evoke a reaction. It’s not a passive design.”

“At the same time, it’s quiet,” she said. “It’s a little sliver of ‘Miami Vice’ right there on Wall Street.”

Jason Diamond, a writer for GQ, referred to it as “the most coked-out subway entrance” in New York.

We are currently experiencing a moment of pop culture nostalgia for the aesthetic of the 1980s and ’90s — from “Stranger Things” and “Top Gun” to the luridly fluorescent upcoming Barbie movie and the Dapper Dan and Adidas designs for Gucci. A new generation of TikTok creators are wistful for the bright colors and sense of fun the 1980s evoke.

Will the atrium become just another memory, living only on the Cocaine Decor Twitter feed or in retro Instagram accounts such as Luxurydeptstore and Asthetic80sdream?

“They’re like, we want to make it like a place where people want to meet up. But why wouldn’t people want to meet up in a gigantic ice cream parlor?” questioned Herzog. “Does it have to be timeless to be preserved?”

Reached by phone recently, Goldberger, 71, who had called the space “frilly” and compared it to an ice cream parlor, admitted that he had been “kind of snarky.”

“I’d much rather see it saved than turned into something that would be just another modern office lobby,” he said. “As time has gone on, I realize it’s one of the few significant interiors from that time.”

Waytkus and her colleagues agree. “Hopefully we won’t lose it,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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